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The Under-the-Radar Ascent Behind Shaq Moore's USMNT Return and Landmark Moment

The right back may have the fastest goal in modern USMNT history, but his climb back to the national team radar has been anything but rapid. Now, he's making the most of his chance.

It was an exhilarating and ephemeral moment born out of opportunism and instinct, yet underpinned by years of poise, fitful progress, perseverance and quiet self-belief. We remember and celebrate the moments, of course. They’re the highlights that go viral, and they help define tournaments, careers and legacies. But even when they seem to come from nothing, like a goal scored just 20 seconds into a game, it’s worth considering how much mass sits beneath the surface.

It was a must-win game to whatever extent the U.S. men’s national team wanted to avoid facing Mexico before the Concacaf Gold Cup final. And just 20 seconds into last Sunday’s group-stage decider against Canada at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park, the Americans took a lead they’d never relinquish. Kellyn Acosta freed Sebastian Lletget in the left channel and by the time the ball reached the LA Galaxy midfielder, right wingback Shaq Moore already was racing toward the six-yard box. His read paid off, and Moore barely had to break stride before slotting his shot home.

Moore ran toward Lletget in celebration. The crowd erupted. It was an unexpected and euphoric start, and the goal was the 24-year-old Moore’s first as a senior U.S. international. His parents, who live outside Atlanta, were there to see it live.

“It was just like, ‘Wow, I just scored,’ and then the energy and the crowd, I hadn’t felt that energy in a minute because obviously, playing [club soccer] in Spain with COVID, we hadn’t played in front of people in a while,” Moore recalled. “Just the energy of the building and I’m scoring a goal like that so early, it was a great feeling.”

What a moment. What a memory. But within days, Moore had moved on. He’d watched the replay “a few times,” he acknowledged, but Sunday’s quarterfinal against Jamaica was around the corner and it was time to refocus. If you let the highs get too high, you’re in danger of the lows becoming too low. And Moore had already learned the hard way that staying level-headed always was the best approach. It’s what had brought him to that moment in Kansas City after nearly three years in the international wilderness. The sprint into the penalty area was just the tip of the iceberg.

Shaq Moore celebrates his goal for the USMNT vs. Canada

Consider Moore’s evaluation of his 2020–21 season with CD Tenerife, a Spanish Segunda División team and his fifth stop in seven years since leaving the U.S. In addition to learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, Moore had to endure the financial collapse of two clubs. At Reus Deportiu, he went months without a paycheck. And as recently as two years ago, he was playing for Levante’s reserve side in Spain’s third tier.

But last season, following so many years of uncertainty, Moore was a cornerstone. After signing a contract extension that runs until the summer of 2024, the defender appeared in a team-leading 42 games, playing a whopping 8.6% more minutes than Tenerife’s second-most active player. Moore missed just one league match all season as the Canarians finished 14th in a competitive Segunda. There had been a lot of upheaval. Now, he was finally established. But when discussing it, Moore switches from celebratory to cerebral almost instantaneously. It’s about embracing the bad along with the good, keeping an even keel and respecting the vital importance of the journey. Strength comes from the struggle, he believes, and not from fleeting success.

“It was very important for me to get a full season under my belt playing every game. You need that: The good, the bad,” he told Sports Illustrated. “How do you react after a good game? How do you react after a bad game? How do you react if you have a bad mistake and the media is on top of you? All the little stuff kind of helped me just kind of be level-headed and just keep knocking on the door—the good, bad, ugly.

“If I score a goal, if I let a goal in, just kind of keep on going and know that I’ve got a job to do,” he continued. “There’s another game to go and if I’m called on, I need to be ready.”

It’s an attitude forged by disappointment and delayed gratification that, ironically, helped Moore endure even more of the same. And it helped prepare him to respond to U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s Gold Cup call and his sudden starting role despite a long absence from the national team program and the tournament’s awkward timing. If no high is too high and no low is too low, the stakes become a lot more manageable.

Born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to parents from Trinidad and Tobago, Moore was raised in South Florida and Georgia with soccer in his blood. His father, Wendell Moore, played for the Soca Warriors in the mid-1980s, and his maternal uncle, Richard Goddard, was a T&T goalkeeper who’d been on the books at several North American clubs. Shaq was a U-17 national team stalwart before playing for coach Tab Ramos at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where the U.S. fell to eventual-winner Serbia in the quarterfinals.

Shaq Moore playing for Tenerife in Spain's second division

With the change in era that followed the senior national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, interim manager Dave Sarachan took a look at a host of young players during his year in charge. Moore was another young American trying to climb the ladder in Europe, and he was tight with his compatriots thanks to their time with the junior national teams. He was out of action at Levante and on loan to Reus during most of '18, but said that he still felt like a key part of U.S. soccer’s ambitious new cohort. Among Moore’s five appearances for Sarachan were friendly starts against France, Mexico and Italy.

“My road was a little bit harder. Obviously, I didn’t make it to quite the level that some of the other guys did. But yeah, like everybody else, I was trying to get my feet wet, trying to find a place where I can grow and get better in Europe and I definitely feel a part of that kind of first wave of young players,” he said. “Some of those same core guys that [Sarachan] called up are important pieces of the team now. It definitely was an opportunity. I think they did a great job kind of bringing the next generation of players into the team.”

But then that generation started to progress without him. After Berhalter took charge, a new U.S. core evolved and the invitations stopped. Moore signed with Tenerife in the summer of 2019, then the pandemic hit. The optimism and attention surrounding the national team soared, while Moore still was searching for stability. He fell off the radar for many, playing second-tier games that weren’t on U.S. TV and without a call-up for nearly three years. He realized that he could be frustrated, or he could be philosophical.

“It was tough,” Moore said of Reus’s expulsion from the league, his return to Levante and the wait for first-team football. “At that age, if you're not really playing first-team, I kind of knew [Berhalter] probably wouldn’t call me up. They’d go more with first-team guys, and also at my position there were a lot of young players breaking out. So I kind of knew I was just going to have to put my head down and find a place, first and foremost, where I could just play, do my thing and show myself and eventually just get back into the team. That was always my mindset.

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“There was never any animosity, you know? Like I should be there,” he stressed.

Even though Moore was out of sight and out of mind for many fans, coaches in both the U.S. and Trinidad were watching. Berhalter’s assistant, Nico Estevez, once worked for Moore’s first Spanish club, Huracán Valencia, and checked in with the player on occasion. Meanwhile, there was dialogue with T&T officials who expressed interest in a possible international switch. Considering his heritage and lack of progress with the U.S., it made perfect sense for Moore to consider that approach. But consideration was as far as it got.

USMNT right back Shaq Moore

“My first choice was always playing for the U.S. I always thought if I had a proper chance, a proper shot to be in the team … I always knew I had the ability to get into the U.S. team. It was always the U.S. for me,” he said, adding that his father was involved in talks with Trinidad but put no pressure on his son.

“He was kind of in the same boat. He knew if I had a good shot to just play, to kind of show myself, I would one day be in the mix,” Moore said.

So he remained focused on the long term. Then circumstances finally broke Moore’s way. While he was becoming a Tenerife linchpin, the compressed international calendar caused by the pandemic—highlighted by a packed World Cup qualifying schedule starting in September—forced Berhalter to plan for a significantly larger player pool. He chose to field his European-based stars in last month’s Concacaf Nations League finals before giving them a rest ahead of their club campaigns. The Gold Cup would be for MLS players or those on the fringe of the World Cup picture. It would represent their last best chance to make their case for qualifying. Moore was at home with his family outside Atlanta, training on his own and preparing to return to Spain, when he got the call. The wait was over.

“I had a foundation of training that I’d already done, so it was just kind of some little fitness stuff to ease into it to get myself up physically,” he said. “This was an opportunity of a lifetime—not being in the team for almost three years.”

Moore’s ability to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the opportunity, or the magnitude of anything, really, has been crucial to his success this month. He barely flinched when he was informed shortly before the Gold Cup opener that Reggie Cannon (hamstring) was unable to start and that he’d be on the field at the opening whistle. Moore put in an excellent, two-way, 75-minute shift against a Haitian squad that gave the U.S. some trouble, and he was involved in the build-up to Sam Vines’s winning goal. Moore said he received the game ball and an ovation from his teammates following the victory.

USMNT right back Shaq Moore at the Gold Cup

“He got coaches’ man of the match today,” Berhalter said following the 1–0 win. “Shaq got the notification that he was in the starting XI hours before the game, and to come in and have that performance—he’s not even in preseason. He was training individually at home before this. So I think he did a great effort and there’s more to come from him.”

Moore then played nearly an hour in the 6–1 demolition of Martinique before his star turn against Canada last weekend. Along with New York City FC defender James Sands, Moore arguably has been the U.S. revelation of the Gold Cup. Despite spending so much time on the outside looking in, he clearly belongs.

With Cannon returning to fitness, there’s no guarantee Moore will start the quarterfinal. He acknowledged the backlog at his position, whether Berhalter opts for his standard 4-3-3 or the increasingly familiar 3-5-2. In addition to Cannon, Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin and Bryan Reynolds will be strong contenders for minutes come the fall. Moore isn’t frustrated though. He doesn’t feel like he’s made it now, just like he didn’t think that all was lost when the phone wasn’t ringing last year.

“It was a proud moment,” he said of the goal against Canada and the excitement that followed, which included messages from Spanish teammates who stayed up to watch the game. “But I kind of want to just move on and get ready for the next game.”

The only way to get to where you want to be is to keep moving forward.

“I like to be a routine guy, but I know obviously a lot of stuff you can’t control. A lot of stuff isn’t really in your hands. For me it’s just, all right, I got this curveball, O.K., how do I deal with it? I got that curveball, how do I deal with it?” he said.

“The stuff I went through in Spain definitely made me stronger,” he added. “I wouldn’t say it’s patience, but kind of like putting your head down and putting things in perspective. I never wanted to feel down about making the national team or not making it. Life kind of goes on. Obviously it was always in the back of my mind, that it would be cool to get back into the team. But it was never like, ‘Oh, my life is over if I don’t make the national team.’ You know what I mean? I’m just going to do my thing, keep working hard and eventually, hopefully, the opportunity comes up and I'll take advantage of it.”

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